Norfolk’s 100-year-old trees still giving fruit

PUBLISHED: 18:32 05 November 2020 | UPDATED: 18:49 05 November 2020

Purple Pershore is used most often for cooking and preserving, originally raised near Pershore Worcestershire in 1877. It has beautiful white flowers in early spring and so is a very good early nectar source for insects. Photo: Paul Read

Purple Pershore is used most often for cooking and preserving, originally raised near Pershore Worcestershire in 1877. It has beautiful white flowers in early spring and so is a very good early nectar source for insects. Photo: Paul Read

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We meet Bob Lever, preserving Norfolk orchard’s ancient fruit trees

Bob can put his whole arm right into the centre of the tree because the heartwood has rotted away. Photo: Genevieve BroadBob can put his whole arm right into the centre of the tree because the heartwood has rotted away. Photo: Genevieve Broad

The ancient trees of Bob Lever’s orchard in north-west Norfolk show the fissures and creases of history in gnarled trunks and boughs. When they were young in the early 1900s, Herbert Asquith was prime minster and King Edward VII was on the throne. The calm atmosphere reflects steady growth throughout a turbulent century, a display of resilience and continuity.

Bob Lever left a high stress career as a stage manager in the mid-1980s.” I was getting disenchanted with pushing actors and singers around and more and more in love with my allotment. The horticulture came as a kind of therapy really,” he explains.

Bob defines a ‘veteran’ as a tree which has been treated unkindly in the past, typically showing huge rot hollows created by large-scale pruning wounds. These result from growers forcing trees into shapes that can be easily harvested and sprayed. He points to a tree, saying, “This is a perfect example. It’s had a massive piece taken off leaving a hole 8 inches across, straight into the bole of the tree. Human actions have made veterans of these ancient survivors, similar to woodland pollards.”

Dressed in khaki camouflage trousers and an old green fleece, Bob is clearly at ease in his orchard. Ancient plums and apples, full of character and fruit, are surrounded by high hedges of wild rose, bramble and hawthorn, a haven of shelter in the flat fen landscape. Bob’s description of his orchard is revealing, “I just love the trees, I love the relative peace. It’s a place of great tranquillity and the trees are grand old veterans.”

Bellefleur Krasnyi is a highly scented dessert apple from Russia which is not only bright red on the skin, but is deep red flushed on the flesh inside. It was raised in 1914 in Michurinsk and designed to be hardy to tolerate harsh weather. Photo: Bob LeverBellefleur Krasnyi is a highly scented dessert apple from Russia which is not only bright red on the skin, but is deep red flushed on the flesh inside. It was raised in 1914 in Michurinsk and designed to be hardy to tolerate harsh weather. Photo: Bob Lever

In 1986, Bob found an ideal site for growing cut flowers in Walpole Highway, near Wisbech. The plot included an old commercial orchard, which led Bob, by chance, into learning the skills of pruning and grafting (propagating) fruit trees. Today Bob is an expert, teaching restorative pruning techniques in popular workshops for enthusiasts and professional tree surgeons. He aims to empower people by giving them the skills to care for orchards and delights in receiving news of trees successfully restored.

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There are hundreds of varieties on the 30 or so trees, some individuals grafted with over 20 cultivars. However, many of the original plums have been lost to the fungal disease silver leaf. Over time, Bob has said goodbye to Kentish Bush, Dennison Superb and Victoria, but Giant Prune, Purple Pershore and Cambridge Gage are resistant, still standing firm and fruitful.

“A common challenge of managing an old orchard is preventing trees from splitting out once they have become hollow in the centre,” explains Bob. “Veteran trees should be pruned gradually over several years, taking care to take weight off the ends of the branches. If fruit trees are not pruned at all, strong upright shoots grow on top of the curving branches, creating ‘sails’ or ‘trees on top of trees’ which catch the wind and cause splitting.”

Old orchards are part of our heritage and precious wildlife habitats, but they can rapidly fall into decline without management. Unlike woodlands, fruit trees don’t regenerate naturally from seedlings, they grow from grafts on rootstocks. Orchards need people to care for them and in return, as Bob demonstrates, they can bring great joy and purpose, particularly at a time of crisis.

At one end of the orchard, the trees are pruned every two to four years, forming an open, light canopy with mosses on the trees and big gaps between trees. At the other end, the trees are pruned less frequently, creating a thicker canopy and dense shade. Here the trees provide firewood with the fruit left for the birds. Alongside one hedge, cherry plum suckers form thickets around an ancient line of dead and dying plums and ivy covers the ground. The results of these experimental pruning systems help to better understand the ecology of old orchards and to manage them more effectively.

The orchard received recognition for its contribution to wildlife in 2008, when it was designated as a Norfolk County Wildlife Site. The following year, Bob was immensely proud to receive an award from CPRE, the countryside charity. He says, “We were just chuffed it was deemed by the CPRE to be a significant part of the rural landscape.”

Bob’s favourite tree is a stocky Bramley apple, over 100 years old but still vigorous with characteristic arching boughs. Since 1986, the centre of this tree has been completely open to the elements. Bob’s affection for the Bramley is clear as he leans on a bough and says “It’s still like that, 30-odd years on and it hasn’t got any worse. I love it, I really do love it. It’s my favourite tree without a shadow of a doubt.”

Bob’s passion for his veteran fruit trees is deep and inspirational.

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